In the intrastate Wheatfest that was the Midwest Regional final on Sunday, Kansas had just defeated Kansas State 71-58, and winning coach Larry Brown plunked himself down next to his star player, Danny Manning, in a golf cart near the press tent in the Pontiac Silverdome. "I'll sit with the guy who took me for the ride," said Brown, bound first for an idling bus outside and then for another journey to the Final Four. But Brown knew better than anyone that the true vehicle of this victory was a Scooter.
To get to Kansas City the Jayhawks had to give the burdened Manning some help. Enter 6'3�" reserve guard Scooter Barry, who displayed appropriately Ozian virtues. He had brains: His defense in Kansas's cunning man-to-man helped hold the Wildcats' trey master, William Scott, to five points in the second half. He had courage: After a timid 0-for-2 performance in a 69-54 loss to Kansas State two weeks before, Barry made five of six from the floor on Sunday, including a vital buzzer-beating three-pointer at the half. And he had heart: "I just try to be the player I can be," he says.
Brown signed Barry four years ago partly as a favor to his father, NBA Hall of Famer Rick. But he couldn't shoot like Pop. Brown rode Scooter roughly, but Manning often came to his defense. "Scooter's whole career people have said, 'Why don't you do this or do that,' " Manning says. "They wanted him to be like his dad, but he's not."
Said Kansas State coach Lon Kruger, "If somebody had to do it against us, I'm glad it was a kid like him."
If a team from Kansas had to make the Final Four this season, it sure didn't figure to be the Jayhawks. "Our team picture is like the movie Back to the Future when they start losing the heads in the photos," Brown says. Injuries, bad grades and suspensions forced Brown to conjure up 12 different starting lineups. Fortunately for the Jayhawks, every one of them included the 6'10" Manning.
Flicking in hooks and turnaround jumpers in a 77-64 Kansas rout of Vanderbilt in the semifinals, Manning scored an almost casual 38 points and showed how he has blossomed as a leader. That maturation isn't lost on his mother, Darnelle, who has taken to calling him Dan. "Danny is a little boy's name," she says. "He's become a man."
A man-sized effort was needed against the Wildcats, who were on a terrific roll. On Friday they pulled the weekend's top shocker by eliminating No. 1 seed Purdue 73-70 as Kansas State swingman Mitch Richmond scored 27. In the title game K-State needed another huge effort from Richmond, but Milt Newton of the Jayhawks proved to be up to the Mitch match, outscoring Richmond 18 to 11 and out-rebounding him nine to four. Meanwhile, Dan the Man poured in 20 points and was named the regional's MVP.
Some will say Kansas's road to Kansas City has been paved more luxuriously than the one of yellow brick. Upsets spared the Jayhawks from facing North Carolina State, Pittsburgh or Purdue. But that is to overlook Manning's grace and Brown's magic touch. "I don't like to compare teams," said Brown, who is headed for his third Final Four in seven years. "But with all that's happened, this is the wildest team ever imaginable."